District that kicked out black student for wearing African cloth eases grads dress code

Elk Grove school trustees have relaxed rules on graduation wear after a Cosumnes Oaks High School student was escorted out of his ceremony by sheriff’s deputies in May after he refused to remove an African cloth.

Under the change unanimously approved Tuesday by the Elk Grove Unified school board, high school graduates can wear leis, cultural garments and other forms of personal expression with their gowns when they walk the stage.

On May 24, Cosumnes Oaks graduate Nyree Holmes was forced to leave Sleep Train Arena when he refused to remove a kente cloth – a piece of fabric worn during important occasions in certain African cultures. Holmes posted a video of the incident on social media that generated reactions from across the country.

Holmes was allowed to walk across the stage when his name was called and received a certificate holder for his diploma, district spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton said at the time. He was forced to leave after he walked off the stage. He said he missed seeing his classmates graduate and participating in the end of the commencement ceremony.

Holmes also said officials tried to stop him from getting onto the stage.

Cosumnes Oaks’ rules at the time only allowed students to wear their caps and gowns, along with medals, cords or pins officially received through school achievements or activities. School officials warned in advance that students who did not abide by the dress code would not be allowed to participate, Pinkerton said.

“Our response to a disciplinary call at a graduation ceremony last year challenged us to examine the event’s dress code policy through a lens of equity,” said district Superintendent Christopher Hoffman in a statement released Wednesday. “The board’s decision to include limited self-expression language in our graduation ceremonies demonstrates our district’s leadership in being culturally responsive and the trust we place in our students.”

After the incident, the district formed a committee of district and community stakeholders to examine the issue and make recommendations. Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, was on the committee. She is happy about the outcome. Before “you couldn’t wear anything,” Faison said. “Now, you can wear anything you want as long as it isn’t offensive. It’s an accomplishment.”

Faison said wearing a kente cloth – which can symbolize positive attributes such as health, prosperity and longevity – shouldn’t have been a reason to have deputies escort a student from his graduation ceremony.

“I think in a small way, through the school district, we made it so children of color will not be criminalized,” she said.

The expanded policy allows students to wear one item of individual expression or personal significance during the graduation ceremony, as long as it’s approved in advance, according to a news release from the district.

Holmes, now a Cal State Fullerton freshman, said he intends to be in attendance when the Cosumnes Oaks High class of 2017 walks the stage. “I’m just happy,” he said. “I can’t wait to get a ticket to graduation and see it all.”

“I’m proud definitely,” he said. “I think that this change came from people being outraged and angered. I’m more proud of everyone who stood up with me.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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